Silent sorrow of Jean-Philippe Rieu

The silent sorrow of Jean-Philippe Rieu.

Translation: Ineke/John.

About the dramatic death of André's and Jean-Philippe's father.

For the first time Jean-Philippe talks about the agony.

"A real hell"! That's how André Rieu senior’s son called the agony of his father, whose life ended in a dramatic way. The death of the celebrated conductor made a deep impression on his sons André junior, and Jean-Philippe. Now, twenty years after the tragedy, the musician (who for years worked with his older brother André, but eventually went his own way), talks about the deathbed of his father.

In fact, the real life of André Rieu senior was already finished in 1991, when he suffered a heart attack which was followed shortly thereafter by a stroke. It would take another year, before he breathed his last breath (on February 4th 1992, at the age of 72). His last year was agony. After the heart attack, the musician suffered from what is known as "locked-in syndrome". He was totally paralysed but sane, and could only communicate by blinking his eyes. A particularly tragic death after such an active and successful life. Rieu senior was one of the most beloved conductors of his time and was possibly even more successful than his oldest son, André junior (62). But nowadays hearing that name, everyone only thinks of junior and his famous Johann Strauss Orchestra. Few know anything about the man, who for more than thirty two years, was chief of the Limburg Symphony Orchestra and led, together with Kurt Masur, the Geschwandhaus Orchester in Leipzig and conducted the Berlin Opera.

He had a wonderful career, which is in contrast of his "lonely" death, trapped in his own body, unable to speak. He could only roll his eyes from the bottom to the top and from left to right to communicate. A horrible situation for the family. It was almost unbearable. For the first time his son Jean-Philippe (54) tells about the tragic death of his father, with whom he had a difficult relationship, but with whom he stayed when he was passing away. Rieu senior was not able to speak any last words to his son, who was born on December 16th 1956, while his father was conducting Mozart’s Figaro in Amsterdam.  Not a word of remorse for his sometimes very "unfatherly" behaviour.

What was it like when your father died in 1992?

Indescribable. He was only 72 years old, which is not very old by today’s standards. He was first struck by a heart attack and shortly afterwards by a stroke. The complete paralysis, the locked-in syndrome, must have been hell for him.

Only his eyes and ears were still functioning.  When he rolled his eyes upwards, it meant "yes", going down was "no".

Was he still sane. Did he know what was wrong with him?

I think so. Nothing was wrong with his brain. My wife and I were with him every day.

Did you have contact with him until his death ?

Yes, my brother André was still playing in my father's orchestra. He was second violinist. He could not yet make a living with his own  band. I can still remember that I was an assistant to my father when he worked for the television in Leipzig. I think almost nobody knows that anymore, because it was in the former East German Republic.

You lived in East Germany before the fall of the Wall?

Yes, we were there shortly before the revolution. We had an ongoing visa. There we also had many contacts in the music area. I can still remember staying often with Kurt Masur. It was as if you were in South America: a villa with a pool, servants and a huge garden. Culture in East Germany in those days was a sort of a business card. Artists were given full cooperation. And my father and I, being Dutch, were permitted everything in anyway.

Did you also have a Stasi file?

Undoubtedly. But I’ve never seen it. We were friends with an East German lawyer who only openly dared to talk with us in the car. My father also had a truly exceptional position. He could do anything he wanted.

André once said that your father was a very authoritarian man, who was struggling with people who had a different opinion than him. What do you think?

That is true! I think our father was a gifted musician, a megalomaniac man. In his heart he might have had love, but in his dealings with others he was incredibly authoritarian. He left little room for something to come between him and others, was not very empathetic and was really only busy with his music.

Why did you still care for him with such devotion?

To answer that question I have to explain some things. For twelve years I played in my father's orchestra as a pianist and I've participated in many opera productions. When I was fourteen years old, I was in high school but also at the conservatory. I loved it. When I was accepted, I was immediately allowed to compose a music piece. My father did not like the idea. He thought that I had no talent for composing. Yet I was admitted at nineteen to study composition theory. My professors allowed me to write a big piece for an orchestra. I did. All done by hand, because during that time we did not have access to computers yet. Many nights I worked on it, always between midnight and five o'clock in the morning. Finally the moment arrived when I was allowed to record the piece with the Philharmonic Orchestra of Liège, which I directed myself. When I let my father listen to the recording, he said: "That is very good, but rather continue on with other things. Composing is not for you."

That's an incredible response from a father.

Yes, after that for the next twenty years I tore up all my compositions..... That was really tough for me and it did me no good. I wrote about it in my autobiography, and when I wrote it down, I thought: "Could this really have happened? How can a father do that?". Back then I did not want to risk a rift with my father. I also wondered if I had been a softy before, but I think people love their parents and try to find a way, no matter what, to live in harmony with them, especially when your father was a great role model  for you.He really was a celebrity in his days and that's why I thought that he was right by what he said about my work. Now I know that it was not true. Back then I had no idea.

It was horrible from my father. But as a musician, he was great! That is the reason that back then I went along to Leipzig. For the music. We really only talked about music. On other subjects he was actually speechless.

Were there ever father-and-son conversations between you?

No, there were not, they were never there.

It seemed that Jean-Philippe could get along better with his eight years older brother André. Jean-Philippe, who studied piano, composition and orchestral conducting at the Conservatories of Liège and Maastricht, was after his studies conductor and professor at the conservatory for fifteen years. He conducted many symphony concerts and opera productions. Also he composed contemporary, religious, romantic and experimental music. For six years he worked closely with his brother André, with whom he composed a number of works and released them on CD. But in 2004 he left the company of his successful brother, due to a disagreement.

"You could say it was a business disagreement. But it was also time for me for a change. That is part of the growing process of life. We parted on amicable terms", said Jean-Philippe. Since he left his brothers company, he is active as a composer, filmmaker, director, writer (of children's books) and organizer.

The opposition of his father did not hinder him in making a career in music.

As a boy he happily went along to his father’s concerts. Fighting sleep he managed to mostly stay awake until the break and then missed the second part when he fell asleep in his mother's lap. Back then he already dreamt of beautiful and romantic stories, which he would translate into compositions later on.

That the father whom he admired so much would end up in such a tragedy, was no dream but a nightmare that regrettably became a reality and he will never let that go.


To hear J-P's music and see the children's books he has written, go to his website: www.jp-rieu.com.

You can change the language into English.

From his biography:

In the six years (1998-2004) he worked with André, they produced together

6 CDs, 12 DVDs and some TV Specials.

You can find more articles about JP (from 2005 and 2006) on Sonja's translation website under "André & Co", or click here.

In the Privé magazine of Febr. 2012 appeared the following article. We contacted Jean-Philippe Rieu. He mentioned that he had not given an interview with Privé magazine. Privé took the material from other sources, but he confirmed that the content is correct.

He gave us permission to translate and post the article on our website.

In the past André had also told something in several interviews about his strict father, and his youth at home.

The Rieu kids in a row:

Cecilia (Cilia), Teresia, André junior, Robert, Jean-Philippe, Gabriella (Gaby)

Father Rieu with four of his children:

Cilia, Teresia, André jr. and Robert.